Jim Reische: Welcome to the living room

Jim Reische

I come from a family of narrators. “I’m going in the other room,” someone would announce while getting up from the couch. As if the rest of us might need to send out a search party later. 

I’ve never understood the source or purpose of this shared habit. It’s some kind of strange blend of echolocation and obsessive Shieldsian metanarrative, sweetened with a few doubts about object permanence. 

The habit has dogged me into adulthood. Weekend housework entails a series of all points bulletins that I’m planning to mow the lawn today/am intending to mow shortly/am leaving the house to mow/am now back, having mowed. If my spouse wouldn’t lock me out of the house, I’d file interim reports from behind the mower. 

This tic has finally found its uses in my communications work for the College during the diaspora. Consider our messaging about spring commencement. Maud Mandel, Jay Thoman ’82 and others told you when we started thinking about what to do, and what options we were looking at, and how you could share your ideas, and what kinds of responses we received from you, and who was choosing amongst them, and how the choosers were chosen and what they felt the pros and cons of each choice were, and why. Only then did we announce the outcome. 

People sent us thank you notes for it. You don’t get thank you notes in my world, certainly not for announcing that commencement has been canceled. But it shows how much folks value information: They can handle the unwelcome decisions as long as you show your work.

At some point, though, we’ll have to ease up on the rate of communications or else people will get numb. Nor do we want to convey the sense that the College is in a continual state of crisis, when we’re not. In Senior Staff meetings we’ve had some initial discussions about whether to slow things down a bit, and, if so, when. 

Which turns out be a complex calculation.

It can be helpful (and fun!) to abstract such problems to higher-order principles. In this case, some of the biggest challenges are matters of scale, epistemology and management.

First, scale. Experience shows that in periods of stress, people want the maximum information in the minimum time. But total informational awareness doesn’t always enable better decisions: the bolus of data can easily overload our interpretive capacity. If you haven’t heard Tiku Majumder’s lecture on clocks and precision measurement, it makes a similar point. So does comedian Steven Wright’s bit about having an actual-size map of the U.S. It’s not useful to constantly provide a moment by moment narrative. So, now that we’re (hopefully) coming out of the most acute phase of our pandemic response, what’s the right cadence of communication for whatever comes next? How can we shift to a lower ratio of communications per week?

This leads to the epistemology problem. With apologies to all philosophers in the universe, for the purposes of this op-ed I’ll define the term through a pair of stoner questions: How do we really know what we know? And how do we really know that we really know it? Whence do all of you at Williams derive your understanding of what we, the administration, are up to? Who even is the administration? Do you trust the email from the communications guy you’ve never met, or the thing your friend told you on the Paresky steps? How do you decide what to believe at all, when you can’t attend every meeting, read every email, participate in every decision? In a liberal arts community, what constitutes proof, and when do we revert to trust?

And that’s where politics come in. Communities function on trust: it enables a division of labor through which a group can be more effective than any one of its members, per unit of time. But if the members of that group don’t trust each other, then everyone has to participate in every decision, and the group’s capacity for work regresses towards one. Trust is earned, and politics, in its best moments, is a process of earning it. I’ll now misconstrue game theory along with philosophy (my academic wannabe urges are relentless and equal-opportunity), but check out Axelrod’s Tournament for one angle on this problem. Back in the real world, this same question is at the core of Maud’s leadership style: The most vital and successful communities are the ones that learn how to balance information and trust. 

So that’s what’s ahead of us, communications-wise: Figuring out the rate of communications necessary to support a well-informed, trusting, vital Williams community, without overwhelming people with more information than they want or need. Which takes me back to my personal issues: Can the lawn get mowed without the constant updates? 

To quote Rahsaan Roland Kirk, spring will be a little late this year. But I think so. 

And that makes me optimistic for Williams, too.

Jim Reische is the Chief Communications Officer for the College.